May 1, 2004

Scenes from The House Dream
David Hoffos presents Phase Two of a large, ongoing work, by Nancy Tousley

Nancy Tousley
Calgary Herald

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Recurring dreams about a house come to many of us at night, just as they do to David Hoffos, one of the most interesting and original artists under 40 years of age in Canada.

For the past two years, Hoffos has been at work on an installation he calls Scenes From The House Dream. In fact, the multi-part project was inspired by a dream about a house, but, when he began the work, he wasn’t aware of how common an image the house is in dreams. People have been telling him about their house dreams. Hoffos, however, is keeping his own dream to himself.

“It’s not really about my dreams,” the 38-year-old Lethbridge-based artist says, “as much as it is about dreaming, and archetypal dreams and archetypal imagery.”

The House Dream will be spun out in phases that could count up to as many as five, with each part having four to five scenes, presented as miniature models. Mounted at eye level in a long wall in a dark gallery, the models are viewed one by one through a frame. The spectator looks through a glass into them, each one a small, vividly detailed, enclosed world, whose jewel-like light and colour create the intense surreality of a dream.

Phase One was shown last year at TrepanierBaer, Hoffos’s Calgary gallery, which has committed to seeing this large project through to completion. Phase Two is now in residence there for one more week. Anyone who saw the first part will surely want to see the second, and it is never too late to catch up.

To recap quickly, Phase One (2003) contained Airships, an overhead view of a zeppelin floating high above a lit-up city spreading out below; Circle Street, a claustrophobic suburban street on which a boy is riding his bicycle while fireworks are exploding overhead; Parlour (Golf), a living room in which a man practises putting in front of a lit fireplace, while a giant boy plays hide and go seek in the hallway; and Airstream, a campsite in which a woman comes out of her trailer parked in the woods and looks around, failing to see the ghostly apparition that has drawn her outside.

At the end of the row of scenes in Phase One, the dim figure of a life-size woman, a cut-out illusion made by projecting a moving video image onto her cut-out wooden shape, sweeps the floor with a broom. Hoffos always adds elements to an installation that exist in the scale and space of the real world, even if it’s an other-worldly doppelganger.

Airstream (2003) links the first two phases of The House Dream installations. The last scene of Phase One, it is the first scene of Phase Two, followed by the moody 65 Footers (2003), a pleasure yacht on which a woman walks the deck of the boat tied up at the dock, but doesn’t see the giant squid lurking beneath it; Airport Hotel (2004), a modernist hotel room in which a woman smokes and drinks, changes the TV channel, and then put on her robe, while airplanes taxi by on a runway outside her window; and Absinthe Bar (2004), a life-size cut-out illusion of a ghostly woman.

Seen through a doorway, the woman sits alone at a table, sipping a drink. Outside the door is a very realistic orange cat and another woman, a gallery attendant or waitress, who takes out a pad and makes notes, two more cut-out illusions.

The overall mood of the installation creates a sense of disquiet, as if something eerie and not entirely perceptible is afoot. Each of the models has a subtle sound element, like the call of a loon, the lapping of waves, the clattering of ice cubes into a glass and a single, ominous musical tone. As an ensemble, the models speak to anxiety, watchfulness, ennui and waiting for something to happen, as their actions play out in an endless loop.

A woman keeps coming out of the trailer to check outside, nervously walk the deck of the yacht, pacing the rug of the hotel room floor, taking another sip of her drink, making another note on her pad.

The places they frequent are on the edges of the city. Hoffos chose Airstream as the link between the installations because “It was the one I felt could set the mood. That was the one that was on the edge of town,” he says. They’re all on the edges — the docks, the airport, the campground. It’s like a dangerous space, unpoliced, beyond the suburbs.

“Growing up in the suburbs like I did, you didn’t have to go too far to be in the wilderness.”

Hoffos was born in Montreal and moved with his family to Calgary in 1977. They settled in Lake Bonavista, the model for the suburb that often appears in his work. Three years later, the family moved to Sydney, Australia, where David went to high school. His youthful hopes of going to film school and becoming a producer-director were dashed when he flunked his final exams. He had spent all of his time watching movies, absorbing them and the history of film. Back in Canada, he finally discovered time-based art when he started the University of Lethbridge in 1990.

Film has always had a place in his thinking, however. Early film, and seminal figures such as the magician-cum-filmmaker Georges Melies, have had an important influence on his work, as have the magic acts, peep shows, dioramas and cycloramas that entertained the Victorians. His large installation works, such as You Will Remember When You Need To Know (1995), Catastrophe (1998) and Another City (1999/2002), made direct references to films and directors and drew on the audience’s knowledge of film genres — science fiction, disaster, romance — to flesh out suggestive but plotless scenes.

Even now that Hoffos is moving further away from film in works such as Redwood Downs (2002), another large installation, and Scenes from The House Dream, in which he is working smaller and refining his techniques, film still informs his work. It seems inevitable, and, after all, film is referred to metaphorically as “the dream machine.”

Related to Parlour (1998), a table-top dollhouse model Hoffos made for a show in Spain about Houdini and fakery — the first work into which he projected small figures — the new miniature models or “scenes” function like story boards. Hoffos is making them in clusters, in no particular order.

“The scenes aren’t in their proper order yet,” he says. “They will be in order when The House Dream is complete. It’s my clumsy way of making a narrative at this point.

“There is no obvious connection to movies anymore. When it’s less like a movie, it is more like a dream. In many of my dreams, I get stuck. The narrative stops and becomes a scene. That’s the feeling I am trying to recreate.”

He likens the installations of Scenes From the Dream Machine to “a nocturnal zoo exhibit; you go in and hear the sounds of life. Or a dark aquarium.”

The wilderness one enters in Scenes From The Dream House, for the moment at least, seem obviously to be psychological. Its story will emerge. Phase Three will appear this time next year at TrepanierBaer, followed by Phase Four and Phase Five.

Perhaps the house is the self, Hoffos says. “I’m keeping it pretty mysterious, even to myself. I don’t know the whole story. If I did, I don’t think I’d make the work. I’m telling this story to myself.”

© The Calgary Herald 2004